Knocking on Life’s Door

Certain songs stop me in my tracks. Songs like Guns and Roses’ version of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” I reflect on the delicate nature of life. Max Strom, with whom I completed my yoga teacher instruction years ago told of a friend who annually made a list of personal goals and aspirations for the year. At the end of each year, he’d visit the list and make additions and adjustments. Not knowing how much time he had on earth, this friend posited that if he lived according to this list, he would feel most fulfilled when his time came. Abruptly my teacher’s friend died. But Max knew he had lived. Truly lived. Max charged those of us under his training to make a similar list, as if we had only a year to live. I haven’t done it every year despite the fact that I make lists for most everything.

This summer I’ve stood alongside loved ones battling illnesses and grappling with death. The palpable knowledge that life is finite makes living with purpose more urgent. It brings meaning and clarity to an ever shortening list. The “things” on the list have faded. The biggest “thing” now is time, time for moments of real connection during ordinary days. Time to be present for those in my life –my husband, friends, family. Time to witness my children’s growth and teach them through my and their mistakes. Time for depth and levity, with and without words, for lots of laughter, for food and maybe some wine. Time to give and forgive. Jews at this time of year hope to be sealed into the “Book of Life.” We say “g’mar chatimah tova” as if our fate is written by G-d each year. Perhaps it is. Just in case, I am gonna keep a list to remind myself to knock, with gratitude, on life’s door.

CHI MANGIA BENE, VIVE BENE

“Who eats well, lives well”

DEBORAH’S BOLOGNESE

Many thanks to those of you who’ve enjoyed my blog posts.  For those who’ve requested the Bolognese recipe, here’s my most current rendition. It’s Italian “gravy” – now my own recipe made with love and adapted from Bon Appetit; includes suggestions from the current chef at Valentino; and has some influence from the departed chef referenced in my blog. Allow a few hours to simmer prior to serving. Pair with your favorite wine, pasta, meat/meatballs & those you love. 

RECIPE

4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil – divided

1 medium onion finely chopped

2 celery stalks finely chopped

2 peeled carrots finely chopped

Fresh minced garlic optional.  Add if leaning toward Southern Italian fare & leave out if siding with Northern Italian chefs.  If using, add 1-2 minced cloves at the very end of the vegetable sauté to prevent charring the garlic. Note: Garlic bread is not a “thing” in Italy

5 sundried tomatoes soaked in boiling water for 20 minutes

8 ounces 85% ground beef

8 ounces ground veal

8 ounces ground pork

4 ounces finely cubed pancetta

1/2-3/4 cup relatively good dry red wine (not the unidentifiable stuff you received as a holiday gift; rule is if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it)

3 – 4 cups beef stock

1 small can tomato paste

Salt & Fresh ground black pepper

Dash sugar

Fresh or dried herbs to taste – oregano, basil

1 cup whole milk

Freshly grated parmesan

Tomato sauce – optional (If you like things wetter, add some. I don’t use it).

HOW TO

Boil 2 cups water. Place sundried tomatoes in a small bowl. Pour boiling water over & let sit for 15-20 minutes.  Drain & puree only tomatoes in a food processor. Skip this item if it becomes a recipe deal-breaker & move on.

Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a large, heavy pan over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrots & celery. Sauté until soft, 8-10 minutes. (If adding garlic, scoot veggies to side, add & sauté garlic for a minute or two, then combine with other vegetables). Remove vegetables from pan & place in a bowl. Add pureed sundried tomatoes to this bowl. 

In same pan, heat remaining 2 Tbsp. olive oil & coat pan. Add ground beef, veal, pork & pancetta. Sauté, breaking up & combining with back of a spoon or spatula until browned – 10-15 minutes. Add wine, boil 1 minute stirring often. (Savor the rest of the wine with friends/family while the Bolognese simmers or save to pair with the meal.) Add beef stock, sugar, and tomato paste. Stir to blend. Add vegetables & mix well.

Cover sauce with lid slightly ajar and gently simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally until flavors meld, 2-4 hours.  Season with freshly ground salt, pepper and herbs.  Here’s the deal, salt is needed, don’t leave it out. About 45 minutes prior to serving, bring milk to a simmer. Gradually add to sauce, stirring until milk is absorbed. If you wish not to use dairy or wish to thin the sauce, I suggest using more stock – not wine. 

This Bolognese may be made two days ahead & kept refrigerated.

Grate fresh parmesan atop your finished recipe.  Enjoy!

 

Bolognese

“You’re closing?” asked Jake, his Gatorade blue eyes wide? “When?”

“Tomorrow,” answered M, our regular waiter. Can’t believe Paolo didn’t tell you. He just told us last week. He got a great offer. “

“Mom, you never did your cooking lesson with him. What about the Bolognese?” I waved and Paolo came to our table, light hearted as ever. He rationalized the great deal, his quick decision and his back pain from Sky High with his daughter. My son felt someone trampolined on his heart and our Sunday family restaurant through his childhood years. To assuage his sadness, out came my pen.

“About the Bolognese,” I said. “What’s the recipe?”

“Oh, that’s easy, it’s all proportions.” I saw Jake’s body and mood shift upright, his math brain hopeful.

“The meats – do you eat pork?” My husband nodded.

“Ok, then a third, a third, a third, beef, veal, pork. Brown them together in one pan, then cover with a little tomato sauce. Then a third, a third, a third with the vegetables – onion, carrot, celery, chopped small.

“How much?”

“About a quarter of the recipe, ¾ meats and ¼ vegetables but sautéed in a separate pan from the meats, then pureed. Combine the two pans, salt, pepper. That’s it.”

“What about garlic, herbs?” I asked.

“Italians never combine garlic and onion in the same recipe.”

At that moment, he lost credibility. Time to simmer? Before I could speak, he was gone, socializing and saying smile-filled goodbyes to the next table. I’d made meat sauce many times. Forget the garlic issue, the recipe needed liquid – beef or chicken stock, milk or cream, tomato sauce or paste, water, wine, something to give it integrity, rather than being dry mush. That final algorithm could wait. I watched Jake as he watched Paolo float table to table, Jake calculating our family’s trajectory from perceived special position to chopped meat. Although my family reports I still haven’t gotten the Bolognese quite right, that illusory ingredient never found, the richness and connection remain ours.

Car Wash

Yesterday my 17-year-old son and I washed his car together in our driveway. I sprayed the car with the hose, watched as he scrubbed from top to bottom, then I sprayed again to rinse the soap. Together we dried.

It brought back memories of my step-father and lessons he taught me about cars. Not only the latest mechanical news in Road & Track, but how to care for the paint. Early on Sunday mornings, I washed my car. That was the rule. No matter what time my teenage adventures ended the night before, I was to be ready for car washing while our house’s shadows still covered the driveway cement.

He demonstrated once, “In the shade, start at the roof, move to the front and back windshields, then the body.” Our bucket doubled as housing for the dry rags and vessel of sudsy water. Once a month, I waxed the car. Back then you applied the wax; waited; and when it dried to almost opaque, rubbed it off using “elbow grease.” It was our ritual; he waxed his car while I waxed mine. For this, different rags – his favorite were cotton baby diapers. To preserve his hands for surgery he’d perform the next day, he wore disposable powdered latex surgical gloves, size medium. When we were finished, we’d go inside. He drank a mixture of lemon-grapefruit juice from our backyard trees.

When I was ten, after living with my single mom, I met my soon-to-be step-father. Later he legally adopted me. I imagined he would be in my life forever, sharing holidays and ordinary dinners with my husband, UCLA basketball games, chocolate cake, and eventually grandfatherly activities with my kids. I adored him.

During my early teens, he and my mom commented frequently on people they perceived had wronged them – something the accused may not have known or paranoid visions of stolen money. Most of the accused seemed nice. With some, we’d interacted pleasantly during the prior week, no sign of the storm to come. Often unprovoked, the cut-off was swift. His mother, twin brother, another brother, on-and-off his two daughters from his first marriage. Her parents, her two sisters, our next door neighbor.

I was confused and met their righteous indignation upon my slightest inquiry. With high tips, they befriended waiters in restaurants, her manicurist, and an employee in his medical practice. Then, they, too were dumped without warning – even the one who phoned, suicidal, from a psych unit only to be rejected support from them. I felt lucky and guilty for remaining their focus. Severing ties seemed to empower them.

I should have known my days were numbered. Over the years, he and my mom retreated from most everyone with whom they interacted except their 3 dogs. My mom alternated between her sweet, generous veneer and many rage-filled moments directed at me and others, including, I’d heard, a policeman who cited her for a traffic violation. She reported chronic bodily ailments, anxiety, and surgeries which all included various painkillers during recovery. The surgeries became more frequent. For many, I was at her bedside. My step-father remained busy with his medical private practice, beloved by many patients and, he perceived, his wife.

I struggled to decode the equation to being allowed to remain in their lives. I tried my best to adhere to every diet they prescribed; wore clothes, including shoes and underwear, they chose; pursued good grades; tried to cause little trouble at home. I loved them and would have done anything to remain the last woman standing in our crazy version of family. In 1989 at my UCLA graduation, dressed in cap and gown, I sat with them in the stands. It would be “too inconvenient,” they stated, for them to find me in the crowd after the ceremony. Days before I was married, they asked me to choose between attendance of my chosen maid-of-honor or them. I am ashamed of my cowardly decision to choose to have my parents at my wedding.

A week after my first son was born, their letter arrived. They accused my husband and me of owing them money. Although my husband and I knew we did not, we sent them almost all the money in our savings: the $10,000 for which they asked. Bleary-eyed with exhaustion, I was convinced this would end their accusations and allow our relationship to continue. It did not.

Like with the others whom they rejected, my parents refused my phone calls and notes requesting contact, reconciliation, an explanation or asking their forgiveness. On several occasions when I approached them in person with their grandson, they stared straight ahead and ignored us.

No matter my efforts during my son’s early years and for reasons unknown, my parents, a “folie-a-deux,” could not forgive the person they imagined me to be. For years this realization was devastating. I felt tortured by the loss and the “not knowing.” I sought advice from our family Rabbi, a therapist, and dear friends. With their support, I was determined to live differently. Although I am a flawed human being, my husband, Rabbi, therapist, friends, colleagues, and parents’ peers did not share my parents’ view of me. Instead they pointed out my parents’ manipulation and the repeated Catch 22 dramas they presented.

I held onto hope. Over time, I have forgiven them for their choices. As a new mother and wife, I created a life, never without uncertainty or moments of regret for what I could or should have done. It has been 18 years.

I realize I will never know why. I’ve learned that there are lots of things in life about which we may never know. We all live with some uncertainty. We can and must go on.

A year ago I received a text from a number I did not recognize. “By now I am sure you’ve heard about Daddy. Could you please send your address? The attorney needs it.”

Dazed, I stared at the phone. I had never called him “Daddy” and I hadn’t heard anything about him for some time. I responded to the inquiry by asking if I could phone. His daughter answered. She mentioned he had been sick with lung cancer for two years and that she had visited him on several occasions during that time. With my mom and a handful of people, she attended his funeral. Her sister, still cut off, had not. His brothers still were not welcome. The funeral was the Sunday before her text. My brain noted it as the day of a UCLA/USC rivalry basketball game I’d attended with my kids. Although he had retired, it was sad to hear that his professional colleagues also may not have been informed or given the opportunity to attend. I did not feel sorry for myself. Instead I imagined the sparsely populated graveside. The picture felt empty, melancholic.

It’s difficult to understand the specifics which moved us from Sundays in the driveway, listening to Neil Diamond and John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” as we raced to dry our cars before the morning sun, to his permanent absence. I am thankful for the care, generosity, education, and home they provided while we shared our lives. My life now is full – a loving husband, loyal friends, extended family, two wonderful sons. It has been confusing to explain to them why their grandparents weren’t in our lives. It is confusing to me. I did what I could. I miss what could have been. All I can do is assure my loved ones I am committed to them no matter what. I am grateful for them, our deep connections, and to be given this chance to remain devoted to them.

I still do not know the inner workings of cars or the man who was my father. My son’s car is clean, top to bottom. Of this, my early Sunday morning teacher would have been proud.

Our Inner Garden

Roses are pruned in winter, before the frost. In California, cold is relative but still, we trim the leaves, the dead wood, branches gone awry, all in the name of health. There’s never a perfect day to do it. The remaining roses in bloom before their pruning seem to be the last proof the plant creates beauty. Nevertheless, they must be lopped off. Smooth green canes look deceivingly healthy but actually are suckers of energy from the mature plant; those too have to go. It’s messy work and there are scratches along the way. When finished, the stalks are bare. At times I’ve wondered if they hurt.

Long ago some wise gardener made the connection that these thoughtful, deliberate cuts actually encourage the plant’s growth. Like bangs, if you cut them too much or a little crooked, roses are incredibly forgiving and grow back. The kindness of careful pruning gives the plant a chance to go inward, to regroup. For a time, it’s no longer bearing or supporting flowers. We can give specific nourishment for this inner work, special foods and fertilizer. Mostly some water and sun and then we wait. Time allows the renewal of the plant’s truest essence.

Soon, tiny little stems form from the hardest brown stalks. Leaves sprout. They are bright, shiny and new. Next come the buds cradled safely in green tear drops. I search for predators, relieved when I find no specks of red or white bugs that prey on them. Maternally wanting to give the new flowers a chance, I flick pests when they dare invade.  When the tiniest bits of color peek through the cup of the bud, I know hope is not lost. The plant not only has survived, it has regenerated. Soon more buds form. My garden will be in full bloom.

Rose bushes and gardening have taught me about life. Outside gardening and our internal well-being require interest and a truthful assessment of the landscape and its needs. It seems necessary to commit to pruning with whatever meaning this has in our life and with faith that it helps our true nature emerge.

Some seasons, although I knew pruning was for the best, I wanted an easier way. Or I doubted the need. I didn’t want to do all the work necessary. At times I’ve disliked the mental or physical, seemingly brutal gardening process. It felt too tedious and thorny. With age, I’ve been working to give up my somewhat lazy younger wish and general illusion that life could be easy. It’s not.

I have found the most personal satisfaction through growth-promoting work. It’s an inner contentment not present when something has come easy. Like with gardening, this sense of repose comes from somewhat messy sustained effort – good enough, not perfect – day after day. And it looks different each day. Gardening reminds me that growth takes kindness, patience, persistence and time. Even the sun cannot stare at a rose and demand it to bloom. Little by little, roses and we blossom in our own season.

True North

True North

It’s February and by now so many of us have lost sight of our January resolutions – to hit the gym, to be kinder, to eat healthier, to focus on loved ones, to stay true to our goals. Despite our initial enthusiasm and heartfelt intentions, again we’ve become distracted by competing urges and tugs at our time – work, family, a commute, electronics and the gazillion duties of daily living. How do we relight the fire of our internal lighthouse?

I’ve been on a sailboat a few times as a guest passenger. On those glorious occasions I received the benefit of simply being out on the ocean in the fresh air for a relaxing sail guided by the wind and trusted crew. It was comforting to know where the life jackets and tiny toilet were located, each with their nifty door hook. Simultaneously I admired and felt daunted by the myriad tasks necessary to keep the boat moving in the right direction. Some hard work, some teamwork. I learned that “jib” and “boom,” were parts of the boat, not nicknames for the other passengers. The deck slippery, I lent a hand when I could.

I’m not a seawoman and know very little about sailing. But I feel that managing our lives is like being the captain of a sailboat. Route in mind, there are specific rituals to avoid a “bad tack.” Feeling the wind, noting the waves, adjusting the ropes, tying and untying knots, furling and unfurling sails. Intuition, effort and glass-covered monitors working in tandem. What sticks out in my mind is that the smoothest voyages occurred when the team communicated directly – often quite loudly, responded quickly, and above all, stayed focused and calm. No time to be thin-skinned or thick-headed or we’d sail in circles or become ship-wrecked.

There is no time for delay. When the wind changes direction, when we stray from our intentions, we need to respond swiftly so as not to veer too far. Our resilience depends on us being real, acknowledging where we were misguided and redirecting our efforts toward our resolutions.  Much of this is solitary. I find I need a written reminder and a short list of doable rituals to help me stay on the path I’ve chartered. Experience helps me trust that the rituals bring meaning – writing, walking, meditation – especially when I feel most resistant.

Expressing resolutions with a few like-minded intrepid travelers helps, too. All hands on deck, we need not go it alone. We can support each other. Occasionally there will be moments, sails full, where we glide effortlessly. For most of us and the rest of the time, establishing a new internal compass requires work, on most days, to “stay the good course.”  Things gets messy, salty wind fills our eyes and we are drenched. We can adjust the ropes, return to our intended path, and set sail once again. Over time, we find our True North…..